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The Perils of Public Ridicule

October 4, 2010

I give you a sad tale of two men — one of them young and fragile, the other one successful, widely known and perhaps equally fragile. Two men, strangers to each other but linked by a common fate: both found themselves exposed to public ridicule, and both reached the limit of their capacity to absorb it.

The younger one committed suicide by jumping off a bridge; the successful one committed career suicide by mouthing off about Jon Stewart and, well, a whole battery of pet peeves that thoughtful people don’t go mouthing off about, at least in public.

First, the youngster. As nearly the entire republic knows by now, first-year Rutgers student and aspiring violinist Tyler Clementi hurled himself off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate and another student allegedly webcast his close encounter with a young man for the entire world to see.

Doomed Rutgers student Tyler Clementi doing what he loved

A few observations, for what they’re worth…

You can’t blame Clementi for feeling that he had no way out; he was too young to see that the webcast might be a fleeting thunderstorm in what could have been an otherwise sunny life. He probably saw nothing but thunderstorms ahead. That’s his tragedy.

For the life of me, I can’t understand how Clementi’s roommate expected to face him again after pulling off such a dastardly stunt. Would he have clapped Tyler on the back and shrugged off the streaming webcast with a lame “Sorry, dude”? Would he have said nothing and simply snickered at his roomie for the rest of the school year… made Tyler the object of scorn among their dormitory cohorts? His behavior baffles me.

The Internet has spawned a culture of public ridicule and casual cruelty that might have eased the way for Clementi’s downfall. Denizens of the ‘Net seem to relish those “epic fail” moments — videos and photos of poor schlemiels caught in all-too-human disasters that subject them to worldwide ridicule. Everyone laughs mercilessly, and nobody stops to consider that the victims are real people with real feelings and real families who share their pain.

Yes, we should be able to laugh at ourselves… no, we shouldn’t be forced to accept worldwide ridicule as part of the agreement.

That the alleged co-conspirators in Clementi’s downfall were of Asian parentage shouldn’t even factor into this discussion. Why does it, then? I confess that I had fallen for the stereotype — a positive one, but a stereotype nevertheless — that Asian students are almost uniformly conscientious, bright, decent and dutiful. Well, it’s time to bang another nail into the coffin of yet another defunct generalization.

The obvious moral here is that no group is exempt from committing deeds of cruelty and folly. This is no reflection on Asians, of course; it’s an indictment of our species — at least its eternally evil underside.

While we’re on the subject of generalizations, let’s shift to the other story: the sudden downfall of CNN anchor Rick Sanchez. In a spirited satellite radio interview with comedian/host Pete Dominick, Sanchez grumbled about being ridiculed relentlessly by Comedy Central’s alpha news satirist and all-around media darling, Jon Stewart.

Let's torment him again: former CNN anchor Rick Sanchez and his nemesis, Jon Stewart

Sanchez came armed with a reasonably valid beef: Stewart has a knack for zeroing in on his favorite personal targets and twisting the knife repeatedly…  month after agonizing month. Yes, his victims often bring it on themselves, and Sanchez had given us an ample array of “Duh!” moments — but Stewart’s gibes have an element of sadism that alienates me after repeated viewings.  The man is wickedly funny, but he doesn’t know when to stop.

Stewart’s defenders claim that he’s just a comedian, for gosh sakes. But we all know he’s a public figure whose worshipful audience turns to him for a seriously funny take on the day’s events and personalities. He’s at least as powerful an opinion-maker as Glenn Beck or Oprah Winfrey… certainly more influential than President Obama in that department.

The man isn’t naive: he has to know that his mockery is holy writ to an entire generation of viewers.

Back to the self-destruction of Rick Sanchez. The beleaguered CNN newsman started to complain that the nominally liberal Stewart was just as bigoted in his own way as the right-wingers… that he was the quintessential privileged Eastern white liberal yuppie who pats minorities on the head and passes them over for positions of consequence.

In their own words:

Dominick: How is he a bigot?

Sanchez: I think he looks at the world through his mom, who was a school teacher, and his dad, who was a physicist or something like that. Great, I’m so happy that he grew up in a suburban middle class New Jersey home with everything you could ever imagine.

Dominick: What group is he bigoted towards?

Sanchez: Everybody else who’s not like him. Look at his show, I mean, what does he surround himself with?

Hmm. Score one for bubbling class resentment. Sanchez is a white Hispanic from Cuba, no more a “person of color” than Desi Arnaz. But he perceives himself as a minority and undoubtedly grew up with that consciousness as his father took laboring jobs in Florida.

When interviewer Dominick reminded him that Stewart is Jewish (and therefore a minority himself), Sanchez gushed both exasperation and sarcasm:

Please, what, are you kidding? I’m telling you that everybody who runs CNN is a lot like Stewart, and a lot of people who run all the other networks are a lot like Stewart, and to imply that somehow they, the people in this country who are Jewish, are an oppressed minority? Yeah.

There’s our smoking gun. Sanchez violated two essential rules of professional survival: Never diss your company’s management in public, and try not to mouth off about Jews.

But Jews are prominent in the media, an objective witness might protest. That’s an observable, indisputable fact and nobody should have to part company with a job for observing it (though it’s bad manners to make a point of observing it). On the other hand, Jews don’t “control” the media and never have; that malicious anti-Semitic legend implies deliberate and devious manipulation. See the difference?

Did Sanchez say (or even imply) that Jews control the media? I don’t think so; he simply observed that 1) there are lots of Jews in the TV business, and 2) Jews aren’t exactly an underprivileged minority group in the U.S. True statements, both of them.

So blame Sanchez for being needlessly blunt… blame him for being sarcastic and resentful toward a famously successful minority… but I don’t detect a capital offense in his hotheaded utterances (other than his cavalier remark about his own employer).

What about Rick’s original accusation — that Jon Stewart is bigoted against people who aren’t like him? “Bigot” is too strong a word, but Sanchez made a cogent point about the undeniable snoot factor that I’ve observed too often in educated urbanites with a leftish bent.

Stewart’s “bigotry,” like that of his adoring demographic, seems to target anyone less intelligent, educated and sophisticated than himself. Stewart clearly included Rick Sanchez in that category, Sanchez took umbrage, and the rest is history. So, for better or worse, is Rick Sanchez.

Unlike good-natured jesting, public ridicule is a hard pill to swallow. It takes a toll. Even the most patient men have their limits. Tyler Clementi ended his life for fear of experiencing that ridicule. Rick Sanchez effectively ended his career by striking back against it.

Here’s another sad irony: apparently Jon Stewart had to endure anti-Semitic schoolyard taunts as he was growing up. People like him have a choice: they can perpetuate the ridicule by inflicting it just as mercilessly on others, or they can develop a special empathy for anyone on the receiving end.

We know how Jon Stewart responded. His choice probably made him a sharper satirist, but I’m afraid it might have made him a lesser man.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. October 4, 2010 11:22 pm

    The total disregard of human worth for publicity on YOU TUBE, or FACEBOOK, or TWITTER is a a sad fact of life. People today are human in definition only. The actions are not human, they are more like an animal that pretends to be human. So a talented muscian who has a right to his own private life, is treated like public property. Only each human is not property of another, and our lives are our private property. The complete lack of understanding on the right to privacy would be appreciated if the culprit was put on display in a zoo under the constant video feed for anybody to observe with no right to privacy.
    I can appreciate the frustration of Sanchez who felt his nerves rubbed raw. However, the public commercial media arena is more like a carnival sideshow in decorum.

    • October 5, 2010 11:27 am

      Hoboduke: Eloquently put (and good to see you back here). I used to wonder how a civilized people like the Romans could tolerate the barbarism of their sports. Well, we’re edging closer to the horrors of the arena, little by little. The “epic fail” videos, the reality shows, invasive webcasts — where did this new brand of sadism come from? Maybe we were just suppressing it back in the days of “Leave It to Beaver.”

  2. Jeff permalink
    October 4, 2010 11:30 pm

    Wow! What an insightful, empathetic analysis of these two tragedies. I’m Anglo and grew up in the Miami area – I knew (and disliked) Mr. Sanchez before he made the “big time.” One thing that I’ve not seen mentioned very much is that Mr. Sanchez came to this country at the age of 2 in 1960. His parents may well have been upper-class in Cuba who had to struggle in menial jobs to survive until they could establish themselves in this country. Growing up experiencing the discrimination and hostility to new immigrants in Miami in that era may well have left a lasting imprint on Mr. Sanchez. I thought that he was acting out his pain, live on Sirius Radio. I don’t know if he can resurrect his career or not, but amplifying on why he said what he did might be a start. If he recognizes where the pain comes from, that is.

    • October 5, 2010 11:33 am

      Jeff: Good point about Rick Sanchez probably feeling the sting of humiliation as his proud family lost its status and had to scrape by in Florida. That would explain his resentment. But even without that element, I’d still resent the heck out of Jon Stewart for ridiculing my intelligence and professionalism week after week. I mentioned somewhere else, only half facetiously, that maybe we should consider a revival of dueling.

  3. Bill Kern permalink
    October 5, 2010 6:08 pm

    Political sniping is nothing new – they’ve just gotten away from what Burr and Hamilton did. I’m glad for that – think of having to go through all the interim campaigning for empty seats if the Lefties and Righties were to use real weapons…could you hire sharpshooters as stand-ins? That would really change the balance of power, since I presume more right-wingers would be familiar with armaments….

    But more soberly, what ever happened to polite society? We have gone from a veneer of being “civilized” to reveling in crude and vicious. Reality shows that champion dirty tricks and/or sex as a weapon, “family” fare that has more bed-hopping than Peyton Place (yes, I am being dated here). Subjects that were whispered or just hinted at are now the norm. Political pundits don’t even pretend to be civil to their targets. What used to be termed mud-slinging has abandoned mud and now throws rocks. Big rocks…political commentary used to be more creative, I think, in those days.

    • October 7, 2010 11:45 am

      Bill: I think the current scene is a shock for those of us who grew up in “kinder, gentler” times. It might be that civilized behavior was just too much of a burden for a higher species of ape like us. As much as we love our vintage rock music, I think something irreversible happened when rock liberated young people from the last vestiges of Victorian propriety. Yes, much of that propriety was artificial and repressive, but it also encouraged character and decency. Pandora’s Box has flown open, and I wonder if we can ever stuff the demons back inside.

  4. Anonymous permalink
    October 8, 2010 3:40 pm

    Rick wrote: …Sanchez made a cogent point about the undeniable snoot factor that I’ve observed too often in educated urbanites with a leftish bent.

    Rick, you have to treat Stewart as he is: a comedian. If a political pundit feels threatened by a comedian, it means that the comedian is good. Sometime the comedians are doing a valid points, even if in jest, that weights more than any political expert analysis.

    Look at Faux (Fox) – News, they try a mixture of comedy and political analysis. You cannot call Beck a comedian nor a serious political analyst. What you get? Forced pitiful laugh and faux news…

    About “decency” that was in the past of US news… for me they look like news presented decently but that actually hold back the truth for it was too scandalous. A lot of truths were found a lot lately and not given credibility for they were presented “decently” in the news.
    I feel that the past presented news are like US history books, learn only that what doesn’t shock you, show less sin, don’t ridicule or make satire because then America would look like a not serious country and it may kill itself like Tyler Clementi.

    You say: You can’t blame Clementi for feeling that he had no way out…

    Oh yes! You can. Had the bullies of Tyler Clementi a bigger audience than of Tyler Clementi? If yes, then why Tyler would care about what some bullies showed, he should be content that a lot of people knows him, and bullies are just stupids?
    If not, then there was just a small thing that could be ignored.

    I hear a lot of stories about people being unhappy for being bullied on Internet. Do you want not to be bullied on Internet? Change the sites you are visiting, or get a real life not a cyber one.

    • October 9, 2010 10:21 am

      I knew it was you, Valdo. Your points are reasonable, though I can’t really agree with them. Yes, Stewart is a comedian, and he’s free to mock… but imagine if a public figure were to hold up examples of your work to ridicule over and over again on national TV. I can’t blame Sanchez for getting irate.

      You’re right, too, that in the past we simply didn’t expose our dirty laundry in the mass media. Nobody knew about JFK’s affairs until years after he was dead. Still, we have a culture now that lives for scandal and depravity. Decency and nobility are scorned. In the old days, young people aspired to be like the great heroes of history, science and the arts; now they aspire to be like pimps. (An exaggeration, but you get the picture.)

      As for Internet bullying, it doesn’t matter which sites you visit (or none at all). If you’re being ridiculed on the Internet, all your friends and acquaintances find out sooner or later. Tyler Clementi didn’t have to watch the secret video of his gay encounter… he just had to know it was up there for the world to see. Of course, he didn’t have to jump off a bridge, either… but put yourself in the place of a sensitive kid who has just been “outed” in the most lurid fashion by his own roommate. Too bad he didn’t talk with anyone before he made his fatal decision.

  5. valdobiade permalink
    October 8, 2010 3:42 pm

    nope, not anonymous, just under a handle name. Can I call myself “anonymous”?
    I don’t think so… there are so many with this name 😦

  6. October 9, 2010 3:34 pm

    His roommate’s behavior baffles you? That may be a generational thing, Rick, because it doesn’t baffle me at all. Three of my four college roommates were that bad or worse, and I thank God the technology so readily available today was the domain of the militaryback then. As it was, one of those roommates managed to pull a vicious prank that ended up breaking a young woman’s heart because she made the mistake of having a crush on me, and revealing that crush to floormates of her’s. That information made it’s way to my roommate via two pernicious twats who lived on the same floor as the young woman, and they were off to the races – fake gifts, fake love letters, all culminating in an invitation to “meet” at the Spring Dance where I, knowing bubkus, naturally ignored her.

    So yeah, thank goodness there weren’t web cams and the Internet back then.

    As for Sanchez, his comment about Jews was rather mild, and not even anti-semitic. But evidently CNN had been wanting to get rid of him for a while, and he made the mistake of giving them a giant excuse.

    • October 9, 2010 4:43 pm

      Rob: Collegiate sadism doesn’t baffle me; that’s an age-old fact of life. (Yep, we had budding sadists at dear old Rutgers even in my day.) What puzzled me was this: say Tyler Clementi hadn’t jumped off the bridge. How did his roommate expect to coexist in the same room with him after the prank became known? Either the roommate had an abnormal level of chutzpah, or he was out of touch with reality. Cruelty aside, he clearly wasn’t thinking about consequences.

      You might be right about CNN looking for an opportune moment to discard Rick Sanchez. I found him goofy but engaging, sort of like a colorful local TV news personality. I guess he reached the level of his incompetence at CNN. That said, I think firing people for marginally anti-Semitic remarks (think of Helen Thomas) only reinforces the popular stereotype of Jews “controlling” the media. I’m sure nobody would be fired for making disparaging remarks about rednecks (i.e., rural white Christians).

      As for the girl at your college… did you ever tell her about the prank after you found out? (Hope so. She needed an explanation. Of course, she still would have been hurt that you hadn’t actually made those romantic gestures toward her.)

  7. Priscilla permalink
    October 10, 2010 12:33 pm

    I tend to agree with Robert that the Clementi incident was a case of college sadism gone wrong. Think fraternity and/or sports team gang rapes of drunken and passed out girls, a common “bonding” ritual that was common even back in the day. The difference being, of course (and maybe not so different today) that the blame was generally placed on the girl for “being a slut.” I also remember certain fraternities hosting “Pig Parties”, the object of which was to bring the ugliest date and win a prize.

    I agree that the young perpetrator of this awful invasion of Clementi’s privacy did not even consider that there might be a tragic outcome….he probably thought that his new roommate was a dork and didn’t really care if he got angry with him – which was probably the most he thought would happen.

    As far as Sanchez goes….I know that slandering Rush Limbaugh is considered a good thing by many, but it was Rick Sanchez who reported on air the totally false racist “quotes” that deep-sixed Limbaugh’s bid to become an NFL team owner. Sanchez later admitted that the quotes were either completely bogus or taken out of context (after they had been reported second hand all over the media and Limbaugh’s bid had been denied) and that he had “neglected” to verify or source them before reporting them. So, honestly, I think Sanchez got was was coming to him, although I still think that Stewart has become far too nasty and personal in his attacks, and that Sanchez’s remarks about Stewart were ill-considered but not anti-semitic.

  8. Antony Costa permalink
    October 22, 2010 1:14 am

    Hello Mr. Bayan. I am a high school student and my teacher gave me an assignment to find a editorial and write a rhetorical analysis on it. After searching around and finding ones of interest from all ends of the political continuum, I decided to write one on yours. The fact that this is the first time I have been able to contact one of my subjects directly, and the fact that you happen to be still alive (we deal with a lot of classical writing), has made me decide to post the analysis for your comment or at least knowledge of:

    Ridicule—this malignant attack can hit hard, producing unseen damage deep within the hearts of its many victims. A majority of us may recall an experience of being the target of another’s cruel words or actions. However, we may find ourselves laughing along with the predator the first chance we receive. Rick Bayan cites two stories in his editorial, “The Perils of Public Ridicule”—one of Rutgers’s student, Tyler Clementi, and the other of CNN host, Rick Scanchez—to give the reader a broad definition of public ridicule. With the use of these two cases, Bayan claims that the effects of public ridicule are too horrid for any person to deserve. Although the story of Rick Sanchez lacks the pathos needed to truly support the Bayan’s thesis, relating Clementi’s heart wrenching case to Sanchez’s draws enough sentiment to create a powerful argument.

    Without the need to focus on defending logos, Bayan builds on the appeals to the heart presented by Tyler Clementi’s story in order to create a solid piece of evidence. Clementi was a Rutgers violinist, who committed suicide after being broadcast to the word by his roommate engaging in relations with another man. However, beyond a brief overview of the story in the paragraph, “First, the youngster… world to see,” Bayan only provides minor details; he instead effuses a mass of educated opinionative statements instead of defensive analysis. (Bayan) A better argument is made with this strategy because an analysis would prove redundant—the emotional clout already held by the story negates any need for defense of its use. Readers already acknowledge suicide as an egregious consequence of insensitive ridicule. With this fact, Bayan is able to step away from logos to focus exclusively on building pathos. By drawing on a tragedy of young naïveté in, “You can’t blame Clementi for feeling he had no way out; he was too young to see that the webcast [sic] might be a fleeting thunderstorm in what could have been an otherwise sunny life. He probably saw nothing but thunderstorms ahead,” he portrays the effect of ridicule on youth. (Bayan) Many of his audience members may relate to this through their own sad memories of similar experiences. He then goes further to denounce the twenty-first century purveyor of ridicule used in Clementi’s scorn, the internet, by stating, “denizens of the ‘Net [sic] seem to relish those ‘epic fail’ moments… Everyone laughs mercilessly, and nobody stops to consider the victims are real people with real feelings….” (Bayan) While this argument may damage ethos slightly when quoted in an online blog, the claim appeals to pathos tremendously as a polemic among an internet savvy audience. Feeding the flame created by the poignant story, powerful pathos is built to hold up Bayan’s second piece of evidence.

    Even with the need for Bayan’s use of Sanchez’s story, he takes a risk by choosing evidence that requires a firm defense to become remotely effective. After being ridiculed by John Stewart on live television, Rick Sanchez, a CNN news anchor, decided to retaliate; one interview with Sanchez later, composed of a diatribe attacking Stewart and CNN corporate executives, and the CNN host was stripped of his job. Many people do not believe that John Stewart erred when ridiculing Sanchez—satire is Stewart’s occupation. Debunking this opinion, Bayan explains that Stewart is a “public figure whose worshipful audience turns to him for a seriously funny take on the day’s events and personalities,” and is “at least as powerful opinion-maker as Glenn Beck or Oprah Winfrey.” (Bayan) He then concludes the section with a subtle statement on Stewart’s need for restraint; found in, “his mockery is holy writ to an entire generation of viewers,” Bayan conveys that John Stewart must respect the sway his opinions have with his shows audience and the effect of the audience on his targets. (Bayan) After smoothing over this blemish in the evidence, readers still find fallacy in Sanchez’s malicious backlash; the author retaliates by easing his audience into empathy. Bayan first gives a vivid description in of Stewart’s method in, “Stewart has a knack for zeroing in on his favorite personal targets and twisting the knife repeatedly . . . month after agonizing month,” to give insight into how Stewart’s victims may feel. (Bayan) Allowing the reader to sympathize with Stewart’s targets creates an easier gradation for Bayan’s audience to sympathize with Sanchez in, “Stewart’s ‘bigotry,’ like that of his adoring demographic, seems to target anyone less intelligent, educated and sophisticated than himself. Stewart clearly included Rick Sanchez in that category.” (Bayan) Even with the negative ethos thoroughly eradicated, Bayan is still left with a story that does not draw much sentiment. Most readers do not carry “career suicide” in their minds as a true consequence of ridicule. Use of Sanchez’s story could prove detrimental to the effectiveness of Bayan’s argument; however, if the evidence obtains pathos, the argument becomes twice as powerful.

    The process of siphoning off pathos from the story of Clementi to supply Sanchez’s story is completed through stating similarities, both in the intro and conclusion. In the first paragraph, Bayan describes both of his subjects as “fragile”—demanding an explanation but establishing a search within the audience’s mind to determine why. (Bayan) This reader interaction leads the audience to conclude that for all the reasons Clementi is fragile, Sanchez is equally as frail. Bayan then uses the negative connotation of the word “suicide” with both men; they each committed a form of the act, giving them ample reason to deserve sympathy. (Bayan) In Bayan’s conclusion, he states, “Tyler Clementi ended his life for fear of experiencing that ridicule. Rick Sanchez effectively ended his career by striking back against it,” in order to use the powerful parallel sentences to draw a mass of pathos from Clementi’s Story to Sanchez’s. (Bayan) Stitching his methods together is the envelop method—Bayan establishes the comparative thoughts in the begging to link back to them in the conclusion. The entire comparative strategy creates equity of pathos for both pieces of evidence.

    The attribution of pathos, found in the story of Clementi, to Sanchez’s case through a comparative method allows Rick Bayan to transform the latter into powerful evidence, creating a broad scope of public ridicule to back up his argument. His audience may now see ridicule in a new light with the information they have gained, and recognize more diverse or subtle cases. Education allows empathy for the victims, and the tragedy of public ridicule will fade; the purpose of Rick Bayan’s editorial will then be fulfilled.

    • February 14, 2011 2:00 pm

      Antony: I just rediscovered your comment after having let it slip through the cracks last fall. (Sorry for the long delay.) Wow, I’m genuinely impressed by the analytical skills you applied to my column about Tyler Clementi and Rick Sanchez. And you’re right: the Sanchez case lacked the implicit pathos of the Clementi case, but I tried to draw the parallel and demonstrate that Sanchez was a victim as well. If my column helped my readers think a little more about the casual cruelty that we seem to accept in the media, on the internet, in professional comedy and in everyday life, it will have served its purpose.

      Thanks for choosing to use my piece for your beautifully reasoned commentary. (I’m encouraged that our high schools are teaching rhetoric once again. ) I hope you got a stellar grade for it!

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